History of Penn Provosts

In 1754, no less an historical figure than Benjamin Franklin recruited Penn’s first Provost, Rev. Dr. William Smith (who went on to serve as Provost from 1754 to 1779). Penn was then the College of Philadelphia. Franklin had been President of the Board of Trustees since 1749 and was involved personally in virtually every aspect of Penn’s early development. In 1755, however, when Franklin left the presidency, Smith quickly assumed the role of chief executive officer, thereby creating a precedent which remained in place until 1930, when Penn elected its first modern President.

Smith also set the tone for the Provost’s resume. Eight of the first ten Penn Provosts were clergymen, seven of them clergy in the Church of England and its American successor, the Episcopal Church. The Trustees appointed each of the first ten with the expectation that he would be the leading scholar and teacher of the institution. Typically, the Provost taught Moral Philosophy (religion and ethics) or Natural Philosophy (math and the sciences) and sometimes both. In addition to chief executive officer, the Provost was Penn’s leading intellectual light.

In 1779, however, the American Revolution intervened. The Pennsylvania state legislature closed the College of Philadelphia on account of its Toryism and established in its place a public institution, the University of the State of Pennsylvania. Smith, a clergyman in the Church of England, was dismissed and a new Board of Trustees named as the new Provost, Rev. Dr. John Ewing (1779-1802), a Presbyterian clergyman who strongly supported the Revolution. Ewing flourished and in 1791, when Penn again became a private institution – the University of Pennsylvania – he was asked to stay on. Ewing continued at the helm, teaching both Moral Philosophy and Natural Philosophy, until his death in 1802.

In the first decade of the 19th century, Penn suffered through a period of institutional infirmity and public indifference. The College had no graduating classes in 1801, 1806, and 1809 and just 53 graduates in the entire decade. The Trustees, after the death of Provost Ewing, failed to elect a successor for four years. This time they selected a distinguished mathematician, John McDowell (1806-1810), leaving Moral Philosophy to the Vice Provost, Rev. Dr. John Andrews. Fittingly, Andrews succeeded McDowell, but like McDowell, held the office only a short time (1810-1813).

Andrews and his successors – Rev. Dr. Frederic Beasley (1813-1828), Rev. Dr. William Heathcote DeLancey (1828-1835), and Rev. Dr. John Ludlow (1835-1852) – were all practicing clergy, whose Sunday morning sermons were every bit as important to them as their weekday classes. In 1854 the Trustees broke with tradition and elected an economist, Henry Vethake (1854-1859), to the provostship. Vethake welcomed the changes then in the air of higher education. Two new schools were added at Penn – the Law School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science – as well as an undergraduate degree – the Bachelor of Science.

Following Vethake’s brief, but significant tenure, the Trustees returned to the traditional practice of a clergyman Provost, but for the last time. Rev. Dr. Daniel Raynes Goodwin (1860-1868) was the last Provost who was also Professor of Moral Philosophy. His successor, Charles Janeway Stillé (1868-1880), was a scholar of English literature and American history. Under Stillé the University of Pennsylvania built College Hall and moved to West Philadelphia. Energetic fundraising first endowed professorships and the faculty introduced electives to the undergraduate curriculum.

The establishment of new schools, however, had unintended results. The faculties of the new schools insisted on autonomy and as late as the 1870s, the Provost’s authority extended only over the College faculty. As late as 1879, the Trustees believed they should (and did) intervene in cases of student discipline. Not until the provostship of William Pepper (1881-94) did the faculties and finances of professional schools come under the direction of the Provost. Not until 1914 did the Trustees finally relinquish to the Provost and the several faculties final say over curriculum and degree requirements. And it was still a year later, when the dismissal of Wharton assistant professor Scott created a hugely unfavorable public reaction, before the Provost, Deans, and academic gained full control of faculty appointments and issues of academic freedom. Finally, towards the end of the provostship of Edgar Fahs Smith (1911-20) a consensus emerged at that the Provost should have responsibility for all the University’s educational affairs.

The first modern Provost at Penn was Josiah H. Penniman (1921-39). Penniman steadily advanced the idea that the principal function of the University was research and teaching. Research and the increase of knowledge had been at the very conception of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1882. The School of Medicine had established the Pepper Laboratory of Clinical Research in 1895; the Law School created the graduate degree of Master of Laws in 1907, “for the purpose of encouraging original legal work;” the Wharton School established an inter-disciplinary Department of Industrial Research in 1921.

In 1930, acting on Provost Penniman’s recommendation, the Trustees created a committee of its own members with oversight of graduate education and research and a Faculty Research Committee, with funding sufficient for broad annual support of faculty research across the entire institution. Penniman’s model for internal support at Penn proved durable. It was retained by his successors without change for more than fifteen years. It then reappeared in 1967 with the creation of a new office of Vice Provost for Research and continues to the present day as the Research Fund.

When the Trustees established the Office of the President in 1930, the Provost formally became the University’s chief academic officer. Under Penniman and his successors — George W. McClelland (1939-44), Paul H. Musser (1944-51); and Edwin B. Williams (1951-55) — the Provost’s role evolved as the chief executive of the faculty, with oversight also of the Library and other academic support services, as well as admissions, financial aid, and student life. Beginning in 1944, when John M. Fogg, Jr. was named Vice-Provost, the office began to develop the multi-faceted dimension which characterizes it so well today.

While the Provost retained responsibility for faculty appointments and promotion and for policy development in schools, departments, research, and libraries, the Vice-Provost managed calendars, space, teaching loads, enrollments, calendars, professional development and external relations. The provision of additional staff to the Office of the Provost was viewed as serving “to strengthen the means of achieving the educational aims of the University.”

In the summer and fall of 1953 a new President, Gaylord P. Harnwell, instituted a sweeping administrative re-organization of the University. A second Vice-Provost position, Vice-Provost for Graduate Studies, was approved by the Trustees. In late 1955 Harnwell, acting on the advice of a faculty committee, was able to appoint his first Provost, Jonathan E. Rhoads (1956-59). Harnwell and Rhoads obtained major funding from the Ford Foundation and other external sources and used it to conduct the most thorough academic planning study ever undertaken at Penn, the Educational Survey. Every program and school of the University was included and the Office of the Provost was transformed into the principal center of planning on campus.

Rhoads’ successor, the great anthropologist and writer, Loren C. Eiseley (1959-61), served only relatively briefly, but his successor, David R. Goddard (1961-70), imbued with scrappy energy and an unquestionable devotion to the University, led the office through as tumultuous a decade as any in our time.

Under Goddard’s direction the Office of the Provost crafted pragmatic and flexible responses to the administrative needs of the University. In early 1965, as enrollment surged and students rallied on behalf of many causes, responsibility for student life was placed in the Office of the Provost and A. Leo Levin was named the first Vice-Provost for Student Affairs. Two years later, the additional position of Vice-Provost for Research was created and John N. Hobstetter appointed to fill the post. In August 1970, when the Task Force on University Governance published its recommendation that there be three Vice Provosts, Goddard had already established the position of Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Budget Administration. The Task Force went farther, saying that the senior position of Associate Provost should also be established.

With President Martin Meyerson at the helm, these reforms began to be implemented under the provostship of Curtis R. Reitz (1971-72), a distinguished member of the Law School faculty. He named Hobstetter the first Associate Provost; he placed academic priorities at the head of student affairs and created the new position of Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Studies; he laid the groundwork for a Vice-Provost for Graduate Studies and Research. The Reitz provostship also coincided with the work of the University Development Commission, which produced the most substantial and lasting academic development plans of the 1970s.

The University Development Commission conceived and championed the call to “One University.” Its co-chair was Eliot Stellar, professor of physiological psychology in the School of Medicine. He believed in the Commission’s goals, particularly its strong recommendation that there be a single Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a centralized institutional commitment to graduate education and research. In the years he served as Provost (1973-78), Eliot Stellar achieved both. He appointed Donald N. Langenberg the first Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Research and Vartan Gregorian the first Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Both men proved to be exceptional leaders; both eventually served as president of major research universities.

Vartan Gregorian (1978-80) succeeded his mentor as Provost. He reorganized the office, consolidating many responsibilities under the new Associate Provost, Benjamin Shen. Shen was an experienced administrator, having served as professor and chair of the Department of Astronomy. Gregorian also enjoyed the opportunity to fill the position of Vice-Provost for University Life. He selected Janis Somerville, who had been Secretary of the University. Gregorian was brilliant and charismatic. He was also committed to teaching and undergraduate education. As Provost he maintained and raised the profile of Penn’s newfound commitment to the arts and sciences.

The end of the Gregorian provostship coincided with the close of the presidential administration of Martin Meyerson. Benjamin Shen served as Acting Provost from October 1980 through January 1981. Louis A. Girifalco, professor of metallurgy and materials science and Vice-Provost for Research, served as Acting Provost from February through June 1981.

In May 1981, President Sheldon Hackney announced the selection of Thomas Ehrlich (1981-87) as Penn’s new Provost. The traditional practice was to name the Provost from within the ranks of Penn’s faculty, but Ehrlich had been professor and dean of the Law School at Stanford University and subsequently served as President of the federal Legal Services Corporation under the Ford and Carter administrations. The Almanac and other University publications noted that he was the first outside provost since 1868. Ehrlich moved swiftly, however, to immerse himself in his new surroundings and to work closely with senior Penn faculty. He created the new senior staff position of Deputy Provost and named the widely-admired professor of statistics, Richard C. Clelland, to the post. He took hold of the Academic Planning and Budget Committee as the senior review board for University and School planning. He was closely associated with the Faculty Council on Undergraduate Education and he formalized the School planning process through the Deans’ Five Year Plans. His achievements at Penn were recognized and rewarded in March 1987 when he was named President of the University of Indiana.

Michael Aiken, who had excelled as Dean of Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, was named Penn’s 25th Provost in September 1987. Aiken came to Penn in 1984 as chair of the Department of Sociology and a year later had been named Dean. During his tenure as Provost (1987-93) Aiken established the Undergraduate Initiatives Fund, the Council of Graduate Deans, the Provost’s Council on Research to develop cross-school efforts and University-wide strategies, and the Council on International Programs to coordinate and expand programs overseas. He was also closely associated with the development of the Minority Permanence Fund. In 1991 he re-established the vice-provostship for graduate education and appointed Janice F. Madden to that post. After ten years of distinguished service, Dick Clelland retired in October 1992 and Aiken named Walter D. Wales, professor of physics, as his successor. In February 1993 Michael Aiken was named Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Marvin Lazerson, Dean of the Graduate School of Education, served Penn as Interim Provost for the transition year that followed (1993-94). He was a member of the University’s Commission on Strengthening the Community and was widely respected for his leadership in resolving the problems that faced Penn at that time.

The first Provost of President Judith Rodin’s administration was Stanley Chodorow of the University of California, San Diego (1994-97). He was a medievalist and award winning teacher, who had served as Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at UCSD. He named Michael Wachter, a scholar of law and economics, to the post of Deputy Provost. He described the role of the Deputy Provost as the “chief academic planner for the University, overseeing such areas as the financing of academic programs, the analysis of capital programs, and the planning of enrollment strategies and curriculum development.” Stanley Chodorow was instrumental in crafting the Rodin administration’s “Agenda for Excellence” and took a strong, personal interest in the 21st Century Project for the Undergraduate Experience.

Michael Wachter served as Interim Provost in 1998, when he was ably assisted by the late Barbara Lowery, then Associate Provost, and the several Vice Provosts.

In January 1999 President Rodin announced the appointment of Robert L. Barchi as Penn’s 27th Provost. Barchi was professor and chair of the Departments of Neuroscience and Neurology. As a member of the faculty in the School of Medicine, he was in the mold of Jonathan Rhoads and Eliot Stellar. Just six weeks into his tenure, he outlined to the Trustees a set of “Four Goals Going into the Millenium.” They were to enrich the intellectual climate of the University; to encourage innovation in teaching and research; to implement and advance the priorities of the Agenda for Excellence; and to strengthen the academic infrastructure of the University. Over the summer of 1999, Barchi named Peter Conn as his Deputy Provost and delegated extensive duties to him, including oversight of undergraduate and graduate education, as well as the University’s several resource centers.

In summer 2004, Dr. Barchi was elected President of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and Penn’s new President, Amy Gutmann (who began her tenure on July 1, 2004), appointed Deputy Provost Peter Conn as Interim Provost. He served until July 1, 2005, when Ronald Daniels, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, became Penn’s 28th Provost.

Provost Daniels introduced numerous new programs and initiatives during his tenure, especially in the area of global engagement, including Penn World Scholars and Civic Scholars; the expansion of Penn’s initiatives in Botswana, which include student internships and faculty collaborations with the University of Botswana on HIV/AIDS research and medical school development; Penn Global Forum and Distinguished International Scholars, which invite global experts on international issues to campus to interact closely with students and faculty; Ideas in Action, which funded courses, in any discipline, that enabled undergraduates to do research and analysis of a real-world policy issue, working together with a public official or policymaker from outside the university; the Summer Mentorship Program, which brings Philadelphia high schoolers to Penn for a month in the summer to work with faculty from six Penn schools; and the Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program, which pairs Penn undergraduates with faculty mentors on research projects.

Provost Daniels served until March 2009, when he became President of the Johns Hopkins University. He was succeeded on July 1, 2009 by Prof. Vincent Price, Steven H. Chaffee Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication, who had served as Interim Provost from March 1, 2009 and as Associate Provost from July 1, 2007. Provost Price appointed Penn’s first Vice Provost for Global Initiatives and launched the Perry World House and Penn Wharton China Center. He and President Gutmann published an Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence which led to a 30% increase in underrepresented minority faculty, a 9% increase in women faculty, improved procedures for diverse faculty searches, and significant new appointments of women and minority Deans, Vice Provosts, and other senior University leaders. He was a strong supporter of arts and culture, creating the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation, co-sponsoring a three-year Art and Culture Initiative with the School of Arts and Sciences, and appointing new leaders across the arts at Penn. He advanced new approaches to teaching and learning, including Structured Active In-Class Learning; online learning, in which he led Penn’s founding partnership with online learning platform Coursera; and the Campaign for Community, which encouraged open discussions across the Penn community of critical social issues. Provost Price served until July 1, 2017, when he became President of Duke University. He was succeeded on July 1, 2017 by Prof. Wendell Pritchett, Presidential Professor of Law and Education.